Contributed by Kristian Williams:
After revelations that he had trained FBI agents at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, Vahid Brown found himself suddenly unwelcome in Portland’s radical scene.
Word of his past career had circulated quietly among activists for some time, along with a printed flier outlining his resume and citing readily available documentation. Then, in early October, the Committee Against Political Repression (of which I am a member) posted that information on our blog, alongside links to source material — specifically, the author bio from Brown’s book, an interview he did with NPR, and CTC documents evaluating his trainings. Weeks later this teapot-sized tempest was front-page news, with Vice magazine asking whether we were running a “witch hunt,” and Willamette Week arguing simultaneously that we “should be paranoid” and that we “outed the wrong guy.”
Instantly the internet was abuzz with opinion, argumentation, name-calling, shit-talking, flame-warring, and troll-on-troll abuse. On the one side, there are those who have cavalierly labeled Brown a snitch – an accusation for which there is no real evidence, and about which speculation is worse than pointless. On the other side are the people who object to the publicizing of Brown’s resume, and who accuse the activists responsible of being paranoid bullies and behaving like the FBI.
Brown’s defenders offer a series of arguments, which if strung together would look something like this: Vahid was never an FBI trainer, because he was a contractor. And anyway, he never trained them about terrorism, but about Islam and the process of radicalization. It was just a job like any other job, so it’s no big deal. But actually it was a good thing, because he could help make the FBI less reactionary. And in any case, Vahid’s a really nice guy.
Most of these points are either irrelevant or nonsensical. Only one even warrants refutation, and that is the one Brown makes for himself. Willamette Week reported:
“Brown says he struggled with the decision to take the job but thought it important to teach law enforcement about the complex reasons al Qaeda and other terrorist cells exist.
‘The FBI is the executor of policy in this discursive Islamophobic atmosphere,’ he says. ‘I had an opportunity to help a group of people untangle that complexity.'”
In other words, by giving the FBI good, solid, balanced information about Islam, its history, and its extremist fringe, Brown was trying to make the Bureau less racist and repressive, thereby defending Muslims.
That’s a nice, liberal, improving-the-system-from-the-inside idea, but it’s frankly stupid. It misidentifies the FBI’s purposes and it misunderstands the nature of political repression.
There’s a famous line from Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is [a] failure to communicate.” The first time we hear the phrase, it’s out of the mouth of a sadistic prison warden. The last time, it’s from Luke, right before he’s gunned down. The line is ironic, because what they have, as the film makes painfully clear, is not a failure to communicate, but a vicious and degrading system of power that can tolerate no resistance.
Maybe Vahid Brown has never seen Cool Hand Luke, because he seems to think that the FBI really does have a failure to communicate. Training its agents to understand Islam would only help reduce the oppression they heap on Muslims if that oppression were simply the result of personal ignorance. But it’s not as though FBI agents have spied on, interrogated, intimidated, and sometimes entrapped Muslims because they were somehow misguided. They’ve done so because that’s their job.
The FBI has served as America’s political police since its inception. Better educated, or even more sensitive, agents won’t change that basic fact. It may, however, make them better at surveillance, interrogation, infiltration, recruiting informants, and entrapment.
But if the FBI is not trying to make its agents more enlightened, progressive, and politically correct, why do they want Vahid Brown’s training?
The answer has to do with the changing nature of political repression. The emergence of counterinsurgency theory (COIN, in army jargon) has shifted the state’s intelligence needs. Because insurgencies succeed or fail depending on whether they can win the support of the population, it is no longer enough to sniff out terrorist conspiracies; instead the security forces look broadly, targeting entire communities.
As the US Army Field Manual on Counterinsurgency, FM 3-24, makes clear:
“[Effective] COIN operations require a greater emphasis on certain skills, such as language and cultural understanding, than does conventional warfare. The interconnected, politico-military nature of insurgency and COIN requires immersion in the people and their lives to achieve victory. . . . Commanders and planners require insight into cultures, perceptions, values, beliefs, interests and decision-making processes of individuals and groups.”
To meet these needs, the military has been aggressively trying to recruit social scientists — especially anthropologists and geographers — to serve as advisers and analysts helping them map what they call the “human terrain.”
Some social scientists have seized on military programs as an opportunity to see their research funded, legitimized, and actually applied to real-world problems. The most vocal among them have argued that it gives liberal intellectuals an opportunity to put their ideals into practice by making war more lawful and humane. Others, however, have objected to their colleagues’ complicity in imperial warfare and political repression. The American Anthropological Association passed a resolutions in 2007 and 2008, condemning participation in counterinsurgency as a violation of good social science practice and professional ethics. The controversy has even spawned a small but growing field of counter-counterinsurgency studies.
One anthropologist who started out on one side of the debate, but ended up on the other, was John Allison. Having done his field work in Afghanistan, Allison was drawn to the US Army’s Human Terrain System program as a way to apply his research while helping the military understand the people of that country, communicate effectively, and reduce conflict. He resigned during training, however, when one wargame exercise pit the US military against environmentalists organizing to shut down a coal-fired power plant outside of Kansas City.
With this context in mind, Vahid Brown’s efforts to help the military “untangle” the “complexity” of Islamic militancy seem naive at best.
Of course, he’s not the first to be led astray. After 2001, Muslim leaders around the country made a practice of regularly meeting with FBI agents to promote mutual understanding and ask for protection against the very real threat of hate crimes. Some started rethinking that approach, however, when the ACLU secured documents showing that the Bureau was using these “community outreach” programs to gather intelligence. Records show that the FBI used this contact to document details of the lives of religious leaders and ordinary congregants, including their racial and ethnic identities, educational background, theological views, political opinions, personal affiliations, and travel.
Isa Eric Shaw of the Bay Area’s Muslim Community Association, told the L.A. Times that the organization always “[tries] to work as closely as we can with law enforcement,” and had met repeatedly with the FBI. He was surprised then, to see see the group mentioned in several of the intelligence reports the ACLU had acquired. The meetings were “under the guise of so-called outreach activities,” Shaw said. But really, “they were collecting intelligence information and including it in investigative files. . . . We feel betrayed.”
It is pretty easy to connect the links in this chain: Education about Islam (like that Brown offered) facilitates “community outreach,” which provides the opportunity for intelligence gathering, which in turn aids in infiltration, which can then lead to entrapment. (Trevor Aaronson’s analysis of 508 federal terrorism prosecutions revealed that “243 [defendants] had been targeted through an FBI informant, 158 had been caught in an FBI terrorism sting, and 49 had encountered an agent provocateur.”) Whether Brown intended this application of his work is fairly irrelevant.
Really, the fact that Brown cannot recognize the way he was used, and the harm he has likely done, is reason enough for activists to keep their distance. After all, by his thinking, there’d be no reason not to similarly help the FBI “untangle [the] complexity” of the radical environmental movement.
But in a funny way, Brown’s harshest critics probably make it easier for him to keep a clear conscience. If the issue is understood as a question of “snitching,” then Brown can easily rationalize his collaboration, because (so far as we know) he’s never supplied the authorities with inside information on some specific crime.
It remains true, however, that his lesson plans might prove useful in recruiting informants, building entrapment cases, or deciding which mosques to infiltrate. Whatever his intentions, Brown’s training aided the FBI in its war against the Muslim community. Whether he realized it or not, his work contributed to an environment of ubiquitous surveillance and permanent repression, one in which personal freedom and political liberty are increasingly restricted.
Among the other unintended consequences, his stint at West Point made Brown a dangerous person for radicals to know, and reduced his own ability to work for social change. That has nothing to do with him being a good guy or a bad guy. It doesn’t even depend on his being a snitch, or a mole, or an informant, or an infiltrator. But actions have consequences, and sometimes good intentions aren’t enough of an excuse.
Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America and an editor of Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency. He is a member of the Committee Against Political Repression, in Portland, Oregon.